by Tom Ough, The Telegraph, July 19, 2017
On any given day, Lincoln’s ancient town centre looks much as it did 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago, and so on back to the construction of the cathedral centuries before. But, really – they didn’t need to lay on the horses and carriages, the bonnets, hats and waistcoats, a 19th-century tableau, realistic down to the stench of the horse muck littering the streets. They shouldn’t have!
There’s a reason for the authentic animal droppings on authentic cobbles in this most authentic – a word overused in the annals of daytripping, but appropriate here – of towns. With the help of clipboard-carrying runners fending off tourists, a crew was filming a scene from Peterloo. It’s a film about the eponymous massacre of 1819, inflicted by government cavalry on Mancunian reformists.
Mike Leigh, the director, is evidently running out of enticing premises, if not good film locations: here, within a minute’s walk of each other, are the castle – which, by the way, is a Proper Castle, big and old and fearsome – and the cathedral, which is enormous and ornate, and, between and below them, the olde worlde shopping street of Steep Hill.
Of course, you have to get up Steep Hill to see them all. It is steeper than the price for debenture seats at the Royal Albert Hall. It is steeper than a Ryanair legroom charge. It is so steep, in fact, that – and may St Hugh of Lincoln cut out mine eyes if I deceive – having just finished the long ascent, I heard a middle-aged man say to his medium-decrepit father, who was making off towards a shop a little way down the slope: “Dad, are you sure you’re gonna get back up again?”
Similar words were probably uttered here during the Second Battle of Lincoln, whose 800th anniversary falls this year. It was fought between the armies of Henry III of England and the man who would become Louis VIII of France (only the 13th century and they’d run through seven Louis. I wonder how that ended) in a war over the enforcement of Magna Carta. Magna Carta, of course, was the “Great Charter” that enshrined the beginnings of the rule of law, the right to trial, and the right for sticklers to whine with impunity about people calling it “The Magna Carta”. That most famous of sheepskins is now an arrow’s flight away, displayed alongside the Domesday Book, on loan from the National Archives, in a new-ish centre at the castle.
This is the same castle that those armies were fighting over. And all these centuries later, the hilltop is still by some distance the most desirable bit of Lincoln. Down the bottom, there’s a generic shopping centre, rather than the attractive boutiques of Steep Hill. Not that the students of the two universities here ever venture up. “I saw a few of them graduating by the cathedral,” a waitress told me, “and they were saying to each other: ‘God! I’ve never been up here! It’s so nice!’”
Not all students are so reluctant to see the sights of Lincoln, however. A few years ago, a guy I knew who was at Lincoln College, Oxford, resolved on the drunkest night of his sodden Freshers’ Week to take himself to bed. Intoxicated beyond comprehension, he crawled to the station, and in boozy error asked not for Lincoln College (in fact, a short walk away), but for Lincoln.
An attendant stopped him just in time, thus preventing our young scholar from seeing his college’s ancient namesake. So he, like those who legitimately went to university here, will just have to catch it at the cinema instead.
Six reasons to visit Lincoln
Unless you’re here to visit the still-functioning crown court, a trip here includes a look at Magna Carta, the freedom to walk the castle’s walls and look over the surrounding countryside, and a peek inside the Victorian prison and its unsettling pew-box chapel.
For 238 years, it was the tallest building in the world. What better reason – cough, splutter – to clamber up for its roof and tower tours?
Stationed across the city centre, 36 colourful sculptures of knights on horseback, below, comprise the Lincoln Knights’ Trail. They celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Lincoln and the signing of the Charter of the Forest, a companion document to Magna Carta that gave some control of the Royal Forests back to the plebs. Solve the quest’s puzzle via a free guidebook to get money off a children’s book about the battle.
Visit Lincoln says on its website that the town’s invention of the tank “saved thousands of lives during the First World War”, tactfully omitting everything that happened after 1918. One of those early tanks is housed in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, along with traction engines and plenty more.
Try the Wig & Mitre, an oak-timbered pub on Steep Hill that serves good local IPAs.
Next door to the pub is Browns Pie Shop, a well-loved, locally run place with a fun basement dining room.